Thursday, July 28, 2016

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter I

This book is the first installment in Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs and covers her earliest period. The going has been a little slow for me in part because the concerns of childhood don't interest me that much. I find the details of her recollections astonishing, because I know that I don't remember nearly as much of my early life; perhaps she kept a journal as a child. De Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908, and her family was relatively well-off until World War I, at which time her father's fortunes declined. He was a lawyer whose true interest was in acting. He was witty and good at impersonations and became Simone's main role model. Her mother was several years younger than her father and less-educated; she was a devout Roman Catholic and raised her children in that manner.

The harmony that bound my parents to one another strengthened the respect I felt for both of them. It allowed me to skirt one difficulty which might have embarrassed me considerably: Papa didn't go to Mass, he smiled when Aunt Marguerite enthused over the miracles at Lourdes: he was an unbeliever. This skepticism did not affect me, so deeply did I feel myself penetrated by the presence of God; yet Papa was always right: how could he be mistaken about the most obvious of all truths? Nevertheless, since my mother, who was so pious, seemed to find Papa's attitude quite natural, I accepted it calmly. The consequence was that I grew accustomed to the idea that my intellectual life – embodied by my father – and my spiritual life – expressed by my mother – were two radically heterogeneous fields of experience which had absolutely nothing in common. Sanctity and intelligence belonged to two quite different spheres; and human things – culture, politics, business, manners, and customs – had nothing to do with religion. So I set God apart from life and the world, and that attitude was to have a profound influence in my future development.

As the eldest child, Simone had many of those characteristics, which, as is common, sensitized her to her parents to a greater degree than it did her sibling. She had a sister who was two years younger, nicknamed Poupette, and during their childhood she took on a pedagogic role. Her parents had wanted a son, and this also may have inadvertently affected her identity in the family. Without the competition of a male sibling or the overt parental enforcement of gender roles, her self-conception was not confined to the prevailing norms of the period. She was a voracious reader and writer from an early age, though she was only allowed to read things that had been approved by her parents. She was not good at everything and was quite conscious of it at the time:

...in the pianoforte examinations I was always near the bottom. In solfeggio and musical theory I was hopeless: I sang either sharp or flat, and was a miserable failure in musical dictation. My handwriting was so shapeless that I had to have private lessons, which did not make any great improvement. If I had to trace the course of a river or the outline of a country, I was so clumsy that I was absolved of all blame for the messes I made. This characteristic was to remain with me all my life. I bungled all practical jobs and I was never any good at work requiring finicky precision. 

It was not without some vexation that I became aware of my deficiencies; I should have liked to excel at everything. But they were too deeply rooted in my nature to be amenable to ephemeral spurts of will-power. As soon as I was able to think for myself, I found myself possessed with infinite power, and yet circumscribed by absurd limitations.

I'm only about a third of the way through the book and will comment more later. I am looking forward to the sections on her young adulthood, when she went to college and met Sartre. For me, de Beauvoir's writing is a model in clarity, and she excels at observing people. Her writing is a little uncanny to me, because she tends to focus on the same things that interest me: the thinking and motivations of herself and others. Although that is how I also occupy much of my time, the activity seems so uncommon in the environments where I've lived that de Beauvoir stands out to me as a rare kindred spirit. When I complain about writers it is usually because they lack this most basic and essential skill.

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